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Timber could break construction’s carbon curse

by Sion Geschwindt

More than 100 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved by 2100 if housing construction switches to timber instead of conventional steel and concrete, a new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PICIR) shows.

The 106Gt saving is about 10 per cent of the remaining carbon budget for the 2°C climate target, the researchers said.

“More than half the world’s population currently lives in cities, and by 2100 this number will increase significantly. This means more homes will be built with steel and concrete, most of which have a serious carbon footprint,” said Abhijeet Mishra, lead author of the study. “But we have an alternative: We can house the new urban population in mid-rise buildings – that is 4 to 12 storeys – made out of wood.”

Wood is known as a renewable resource that carries the lowest carbon footprint of any comparable building material, as the trees take up CO2 from the atmosphere to grow.

“Production of engineered wood releases much less CO2 than production of steel and cement,” Mishra added. “Engineered wood also stores carbon, making timber cities a unique long-term carbon sink – by 2100, this could save more than 100Gt of additional CO2 emissions, equivalent to 10 per cent of the remaining carbon budget for the 2°C target.”

The scientists looked at four different land-use scenarios: one with conventional building materials like cement and steel, three with additional timber demand on top of the regular timber demand.

They also analysed how the additional high demand for wooden construction materials could be satisfied, where it could come from and what the consequences could be in direct and indirect carbon emissions from land-use.

“Our simulation shows that sufficient wood for new mid-rise urban buildings can be produced without major repercussion on food production,” explains scientist Florian Humpenöder, co-author of the study.

The scientists also looked at biodiversity impacts that occur when natural ecosystems are replaced with timber plantations.

Alexander Popp, head of the land use management group at PICIR and co-author of the study, said: “The question of how and from where to source the wood for the construction of timber cities is crucial.

“In our computer simulations, we have set a clear limit to timber extraction and for adding new tree plantations: Nothing can be cut off in pristine forests and biodiversity conservation areas.”

Read next: EAC launches inquiry into sustainability of UK timber

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